In this episode, Daniel Kenner will touch your heart as he shares his story of becoming a caregiver to his two very special parents who died within a month of each other, and how this experience at the young age of 30 led to his writing his memoir ROOM FOR GRACE.
IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT THINGS LIKE:
- Positives one can find in tragedy
- How Daniel crafted ROOM FOR GRACE, a love story of family and community, with his mom
- “Just for today…I will be open for all the life lessons I will learn from the children.” – Maureen Kenner
- The way Maureen Kenner’s Special Ed. Students honored her legacy
SOME QUESTIONS IRENE ASKS DANIEL:
- What did you do creatively to navigate this double tragedy taking place in your life?
- What was your support system during such an intense experience?
- Why would our listeners want to read your book? What are the important lessons to be learned from reading it?
Listen to the podcast here
Daniel Kenner – Author, Caregiver, Actor
We’re in our fourth season, second episode.
This is so cool. We’ve gotten so many positive feedback and everything. It’s wonderful and we have a wonderful guest for everyone here.
Why don’t you introduce our guest?
His name is Daniel Kenner. He went through the tremendous trauma of losing his parents, Maureen and Jacob Kenner, and he wrote a wonderful book about this called Room for Grace. We’re going to talk to him about his story, which could be very inspiring for all of our readers to help them when they also go through these very difficult experiences in their lives. Why don’t we start with you, Daniel? Tell us about yourself and what you do. How did you come upon this? I also see that you’re also an author, a caregiver, and an actor. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
First of all, Irene and Stephanie, thank you so much for having this platform for people to come out and be able to lend their voices and talk for a few minutes with you guys. I feel very lucky that the community is open. It’s been a difficult few years, to be honest. On Valentine’s Day 2013, my dad was diagnosed with frontal temporal lobe dementia, and four months later, my mom was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.
A lot of people always ask if frontal temporal lobe dementia is like Alzheimer’s and there are many different types of dementia. FTD is one that attacks parts of the brain that deal with behavior, problem-solving, emotion control, and speech. When you try to put it into words, it’s so difficult to understand how my father was diagnosed and it left my mom reeling a little bit as the caregiver and then, all of a sudden, she’s struck with her own disease. Now, both of them are on this journey.
To be honest, for the first few months, it hit me hard. I crumbled and fell into a bad depression, lack of motivation, and complete stasis, to be honest. It was hard to go home every time I went home. My parents had changed a little bit and I was prepared for the last change. Each time I went home, I wasn’t prepared for the new mom and the new dad. Room for Grace gave me an opportunity to say, “This is my chance to keep coming home and to be present. This is how I can help.” There were so many volunteers and social workers in our community who rose and helped us. For four years, they never said no. I was looking for a way to say, “I need to be close. I need to be on this journey with you.”
I like to joke that my dad was always my favorite parent and my dad was such a vivid storyteller, but dementia was making those stories and his personality disappear a little bit. I came to my mom with the idea of conducting an oral history. For their 30th wedding anniversary, we went up to Bar Harbor, Maine, for a week and I recorded my mom for 30 hours. My mom was a tremendous leader. She was, for 35 years, a special education teacher in Providence. She once won Teacher of the Year. She was a Special Ed teacher and my dad was a Theater History teacher. We always had that. We had a lot of teachers. There were a lot of teachable moments in the last four years. It was extraordinary watching my mom go from being a teacher to learning again how to be an extraordinary student.
Daniel, can I ask how old you were when all of this happened to you and how old were your folks?
In 2013, I was 25 years old. When my dad was diagnosed, he was 65. When my mom was diagnosed, she was 56. My mom passed away one week after her 60th birthday and my dad died coincidentally on the anniversary of my friend Nick’s anniversary from The Station nightclub fire on February 20, 2023. He passed away when he was 70. When my mom went into hospice, it was my 30th birthday. My mom did 63 rounds of chemo. Even that is pretty amazing.
It was more than intense. It was draining. I think my mom would say that the positivity was that there were so many small moments and little miracles that happened every day that pushed her a few more minutes and a few more months. It was beautiful to see the faith and the response to being so downtrodden. Even after going through this with my parents, I’m not sure if I could respond to the adversity the way that my mom did.
Are you an only child?
I’m my mom’s only and my dad has two sons, my half-brothers.
Were they actively involved with everything?
The whole family was completely there, 100%. Because my mom and dad had done so much for our community, when my parents got sick, it was amazing to see how much work they had done for our community because people kept showing up with meals, watering our lawns, and with birthday cards. They went outside and they sang on my mom’s lawn for her birthday. They came out and lit candles for a candlelight vigil during the holiday season when my mom wasn’t able to go out. My family was included, but I would say the whole family was included in our Providence, Rhode Island community as well.
One of the biggest lessons of the book is to put in that time and to put in that hard work and those lessons will come back to you. I keep relating it to The Beatles White album. At the end of the album, they say, “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” I think that because my mom and my dad were so active, so present, and so giving and working with the elderly and the disenfranchised and the handicapped that when we needed it, we were never alone.
That made it a lot easier to be a caregiver at the end because I had big shoes to follow and people were leading the whole way. It was remarkable. I’m so grateful. I don’t think we would’ve gone four years with these illnesses if not for our community. That’s what’s been special about this book. Room For Grace was published on October 2, 2018, and I’m completing a little book tour. We started the book tour in Providence, Rhode Island, at the Fox Point Library, which was across the street from my mom’s school. It was so amazing to see all these beautiful, warm faces of my mom’s past and my family’s past.
I was talking with my aunts after the event. The book is going to give something special in a way that we get to keep celebrating and honoring my parents’ wonderful legacy. We get to keep talking about them. The school did something amazing outside of the school. They planted right outside something called Maureen’s Garden. Right when you enter the school, it is named Maureen’s Garden because she had such a legacy there. To be able to share it with these people who held my mom in such high regard and then who came back and helped us and now to give them a chance to go a little bit behind the screen of what happened in the last few years. It was truly remarkable. It was so special to be able to read some excerpts and have some discussion about the book with these wonderful people.
When you talk about small moments and miracles that helped your mother with her faith, could you talk through a little bit about that?
The first thing that comes to mind is that one of my cousins back in high school had the chance to sing at Carnegie Hall. My mom had completed a round of chemo, but she came up on the train. She and my dad were sitting in Carnegie Hall a day after chemo and able to support my niece, who has such an amazing, beautiful voice. She’s singing at Carnegie Hall as a high schooler. Afterward, we went out for a milkshake and somebody tried to rob my mom. They thought her chemo bag was her purse. They tried to rip off her chemo bag. It’s like, “Yes, go ahead. You can take that. That’s all yours.” I feel like a lot of moments in our family happened around dessert, which maybe adds to a sweet memory.
Whenever my mom came into Sloan Kettering for a second advice, we would always hop down to Serendipity for the frozen hot chocolate. Another one that I’m thinking about is in February of 2016, my mom and dad went down to Sarasota, Florida, for about a week. It was a week after my mom’s birthday, but every night they went out to dinner with the family, my mom said it was her birthday, so every night they got to sing Happy Birthday.
On her last birthday, it was probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. You could tell that it was nearing the end. Dad had passed away and I think she felt comfortable letting go in a way. My uncle came in and we went to see The Lion King at the Providence Performing Arts Center. About a week later, my aunt was in town and we wanted to surprise my mom. The last thing she wanted to do was see the ocean. At this point, she was on oxygen and it was hard getting down the stairs. We ended up literally carrying her down the stairs. We popped her in the car with her oxygen tank and we took her out to watch Hill Newport, Rhode Island. The whole family was there and we got to celebrate her 60th birthday.
It was a dynamic day because it was hard to get her out of the house, but it was a dichotomy, everyone having a good time. I knew this was going to be the last time that mom came out of the house. It was how to make this day special while also existing at the moment, but how do you push away this fear and this anxiety a little bit? Birthdays and celebrations were always big for our family.
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds to me like what you’re trying to impart is to tell people how they can keep the faith and be resilient through such a trauma, how your family went about it, and the legacy that your parents left to everyone.
You hit the nail right on the head, Irene. The special thing about Room for Grace is that it follows some of the lessons that my mom learned from her students. They were a resilient bunch. With challenges and setbacks, limitations and hardships, the lessons that my mom learned from her students were the lessons that helped us live the best life we possibly could in this situation. One thing that I’ve been trying to figure out and how to put into words is embracing the yes and allowing others to carry us when we need to be carried. That art of saying yes shows a certain level of respect, love, and trust. We want to help others in need, but we have to be open to accepting and knowing the value of our community.
When we do that, it’s almost like we get to show others the best of themselves. When we allow others in, we get to see the best of ourselves and be drawn closer to the ones we love. You hit the nail right on the head. Room for Grace follows some fascinating stories that my mom left us in our oral history with some of her students over the years. To be able to see some of those resilient traits in my mom and my dad flushed out the outline for the book.
I can relate to that, Daniel, because our readers know I was in a terrible car accident and my husband died next to me. It was very difficult for me to let other people help me, too, when I went through my trauma. I did that and it turned out to be a blessing for them and a gift for me. It’s hard to let go that way and let others in.
I like the garden part, too, with the students that all get involved because I know it ties everybody in and gives that whole regrowth of life that’s come back. With my own son, things like that help younger people understand it and conceptualize it a little bit better in a positive, happy way. They didn’t lose someone. They’re still here and it reminds them every time they see that, that she’s still around to keep an eye. That’s pretty.
It was such an honor. My mom has a guardian outside of the school that she taught at. I’m so honored that, through all of this hardship, I got to learn and understand how hard of a worker my mom was. My dad was a bit rebellious and grew up idolizing Bob Dylan, James Dean, and Marlon Brando. That’s the route I went a little bit, but it got to see my dad’s illness.
I got to understand that my dad got to be the best version of himself because he had a wife like my mom. I needed to be able to give her that same support when she didn’t have her spouse be the caregiver that she needed. I knew I needed to step up because of what she gave my best friend. I couldn’t have done it any other way. That was the only option.
One of the things I see here, too, is that it’s interesting to see the impact that your mom made on these people to actually do things like this. You said you’re so honored that they would do that, but clearly, she had such an impact on them that they wanted to do that to remember her. It’s a good telltale sign of a lot of things. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for the kindness. Irene preaches kindness all the time. A lot of these things that you may not think are making a difference in the world truly are because this is a prime example of that. It’s nice to see that that love and consideration will keep going now for a long time through that, even such a small thing as a garden.
You’re going to turn your parents’ legacy. You’re going to turn this story to helping so many other people who go through their own traumas. I agree with Stephanie. It’s wonderful. What are some of the lessons that your mom learned from her students that helped you in this situation? It’s so much a part of how we all affect each other and we pass things on.
I love that Stephanie started talking about kindness because it was a dramatic scene with me and my mom. She was in bed one day and I had all these notes. I was like, “Mom, we need to flesh out the lessons of the book.” She took a sip from her infamous water with lemon. She was super parched and then she did the, “Ah,” and then she said, “Kindness matters. If you give respect, you get respect. Treat others the way you want to be treated.” She kept going and she said, “Take an interest in those things around you. Don’t be afraid to open up yourself to heartbreak and disappointment.”
I think that Irene and your mom would get along well because Irene’s always preaching kindness. There’s that and that’s a characteristic that you come with. You can learn kindness, but it’s ingrained in you. There’s a certain person that grows up with that to forecast that back out into the world. That’s a special quality.
I like that because that’s what we’re learning here, too. This show is all about how all these people are giving back to the world. We all find ourselves centralized on that component. It’s like your mom said. You get back what you give and what you put into the world. By us putting that out there and through this book, through Irene’s book, and through gardens with the children, it helps to keep that cycle of kindness in life circulating.
I think those come from good, strong connections. One of the things that my mom’s palliative care doctor reminded her near the beginning was that this process is going to give you deep and meaningful connections. When you flesh those out, we do get back to kindness.
Kindness and living kindness is a choice. People don’t understand that they can choose to be kind, even when things are bad. You don’t have to displace stuff onto other people. You still can be kind and respect the soul in that person, the heart in that person, who that person is.
I was getting a little choked up a minute ago when I was trying to articulate, but what I was trying to say was that one of my mom’s lessons was to never intentionally hurt another person, especially when that person is able to articulate to you what they need. That’s a huge thing.
I so agree with you. My story is very similar. When they pulled me out of the car, my husband was gone next to me and this voice came into my head and said, “Be loving and kind to everyone.” It changed my life, Daniel. It changed the whole way I dealt with things. It’s been amazing how people take it and they start to be kinder. It has a ripple effect on the world.
Relating with what you said is that idea of voice. To me, one of the more important lessons that I’ve been able to have is that this writing process of Room for Grace has kept me in the murk a little bit. I haven’t shied away from it. Every day, I’ve gotten to work with the voices of my mom and dad, get to construct them, get to work with them, and flesh them out a little bit. I’m so grateful that I did say yes to this project because I have been able to stay close to my mom and dad. That’s something that I’m reeling with now. Now that the writing and the editing are done and the book is published and it’s out, will I be strong enough to keep hearing and finding opportunities to be close to their voices?
That’s something that’s rocked me a little bit. I’m hoping that I have the right lessons in place to do so now that I’m not actively with them every day. That’s giving me a little bit of a little anxiety, to be honest, not to have that every day. I still see my dad’s smile and the raise of his eyebrows when he is smiling and I can still hear my mom’s loudest clap and applause in the room. It is these little moments. I was at Les Misérables on tour with my girlfriend and we were standing up and a feather fell from the ceiling. It is little moments like that, seeing the cardinals outside. I’m able to find symbolism every day.
Have you communicated with them on the other side, by any chance, Daniel?
No. I would definitely take that opportunity to do so.
There’s a show called Grief and Rebirth and we have interviewed quite a few wonderful mediums and we have more coming up. You could take a look. They’re absolutely going to be able to help you communicate with your folks. Like me, I wrote my book and my husband is so much a part of it. I channeled a lot of information from him. I know now that from the other side, he is with me all the time, helping me and spurring me on with this. This show is an outgrowth of what I needed to do to spread his legacy with me. You’re doing the same exact thing. It’s so interesting. There are no accidents.
I’ll admit that, too, because I know there are people on here that we’ve interviewed, like Lee and Seta if you want to look back and read a couple of the past episodes. I worked with them personally and have seen and heard things from my dad and my family who passed away too. It’s very powerful. I love the little things you say, like the feather falling, because you’re already open and receptive to it.
Irene, listen to me talking like that. If you had asked me this years ago, I’d never talked like that. It’s important to stay open and receptive to see a lot of those signs and what’s communicating to you and what’s on the bigger realm and the energy. Things like that are exactly them communicating with you. You’re already ready to see. They’re probably evolved souls.
I still have 30 hours of oral history, which Is literally getting inside my mom’s brain. I don’t know what I was thinking. You ask my mom a simple question and she can rattle and talk. She was a better listener than she was a talker. It was giving her a platform to talk and I was like, “Go ahead. Let’s talk,” then, 30 hours later, I was like, “Maybe we’ve got enough information right here.” I was hoping maybe I could share a little snippet with you guys from the original oral history tape a little bit of a lesson that my mom left for me and that I put together for the show, if that’s okay.
This is 40 seconds from my mom. “Choosing always to do the right thing for the right reasons. Always. Commit to that. You’ll never have to be afraid and never have to look back about, ‘If only I had done this or why didn’t I do that?’ You’ll be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I did the right thing at the right time with all the information I had at the time.’ Push yourself when you think you can only do it. Do it five more minutes. Do it five more weeks. Do it five more months. Push yourself because when you push yourself into a hard place or through a hard place, you’re going to learn so much about yourself.” That’s my mom.
I get a little chill reading that. I love that you have that to read to. If you’re having a bad day even, I would keep that to have on play. A lot of people don’t. Irene, I don’t think you have Saul’s voice anywhere to play.
I do, like in videos, family things we had a long time ago.
How lucky am I? That’s my mom’s voice. I feel lucky
You’ve given me an idea. Especially like this show now, how we’re using technology to be able to reach a broader audience. You’ve used it to encapsulate your parents for you. Irene can probably attest to this more, but it is more like a healing process, especially for you. That’s a cool component that is good for readers out there to understand. I’m sure a lot of them are hurting or going through this process that you’ve gone through and how your book can help that. This is a good tool. If you know your parents are about to leave and you’re struggling with that, to have their voice as comfort stuff that you can play at any time is a nice little aspect to have that I wouldn’t have even thought of. That’s very beautiful.
It might be a direction that my heart might be pointed to that is nice enough to bring up. I’ve been an actor in the past, but after my second event, a kind man who I didn’t know was at the reading and he asked me out to breakfast the next day. I fell in love with the idea of listening. He was reaching out to me and we went and had breakfast. It was probably one of the most soul-enriching days that I’ve had in a long time. There was a man, he wanted to talk, and I was able to be there and we were able to share life together. There’s something in everybody’s story that people are reaching out to be told and to be listened to. I’m glad that I took this small miracle and Room for Grace was born.
Daniel, tell people why specifically they should read your book. Some people might say, “I’m going to get depressed by this book. I don’t think I should pick it up,” or other people may say, “Maybe I need something to inspire me going through a trauma that I’m going through.” Why should someone pick up your book to read it? Who is it for?
It’s for all the people who need to realize how big their community is and how to turn misfortune into laughter and humanization. There are positives in tragedy, and those are the voices that need to resonate. I say see the good in people. Stay resilient and mindful, slow down, sit on a bench, and see the flowers.
It’s very strong of you to come forward like that.
It’s not every day. There are definitely some bad days every week, but that’s what makes this day a little bit brighter.
You’re helping someone else have a brighter feature about them going through the same situation as well. That’s very commendable. Real quick before we wrap up, can you remind us where your book is available and how we can get it? If people want to go grab it now, where can they find you?
It’s available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It’s available on our website, which is www.RoomForGrace.org. We’re also donating 10% of each purchase to Eye to Eye. Eye to Eye started in my mom’s classroom. Its mission is to improve the life of every person with a learning disability. They send out a network of youth mentoring programs run by and for those with learning differences. We’re going to give back with every purchase. You can order it at your local indie bookstore and it’ll be there in four days.
I also want to ask you. Telling people with all that you’ve been going through, what would be your tip for joy from this experience?
You are capable. I am capable. You have no idea this strength until you’re asked to show up and participate and face it.
Thank you, Daniel, for spending some time with us to talk about your mom, your dad, and this book. Get it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Irene, until next time. I’ll miss you again.
I also want to conclude by saying, Daniel, you’ve got to get on and read some of the interviews. There are people who you want to know who have already been on the show and who are coming up. We’re certainly going to help a lot of people by sharing this interview with you with so many people.
I can’t wait to read them as well.
Stay in touch. I can help connect you if you want to reach out to any of these good mediums and stuff to talk.
You and I have a lot in common, Daniel. You’re taking a terrible thing that happened and making it a blessing for a lot of other people, which is what I’ve been doing. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the people we’re interviewing coming up could tell you if this was a plan for your life after all. That’s for another episode.
I hope our journeys stay aligned because I would appreciate that support. Thank you.
It’s our pleasure.
As you would say then, Irene, to be continued, because this is not over. Until next time. Thanks for reading.